Hot Casa Records' Julien Lebrun Talks Vinyl Digging & The Art Of The Reissue

Okayafrica caught up with Hot Casa Records co-found Julien Lebrun in Paris.

Some say the music industry is dying, bleeding itself to death in a pool of Internet obscurity that values celebrity-ism more than sonic prowess. Defying these rumors and giving true sound aficionados a reason to believe again, small labels like Hot Casa Records are proving there is still breath in the beat. Based in Paris, Hot Casa has been repping afro-soul and funk since 2002. The label stands for musical integrity, re-issuing relics from the past that could have been lost in the dusty bins of yesterday. “We don’t do it for money, we live for that, but not by that,” says label co-founder Julien Lebrun. Working through his nights as a DJ, he is a bonafide music lover and selector. He and his partner, Djamel Hammadi (aka Afrobrazilero), have invested their lives into the art of listening and digging to pull rare and great music.

Okayafrica caught up with Lebrun in his ‘office,’ a bright and lively side café located in the dodgy alleys of Bastille, Paris. Joined by fellow sound family Yann Kesz the beatmaker and The Pusher DistributionsPascal Rioux and Vincent Bordier, we dropped into the deep conversation, contemplating the fine line in success to celebrate genuine sonic treasures without getting mopped in the mess of mass popularity.

Lebrun gave me the sonic tour, sharing some of the highlights that Hot Casa has reissued, including the excellent Ivory Coast Soul Volumes 1 and 2. He also spoke of the underbelly in the art of the reissue. After scoring a record in Senegal featuring “one of the best afro-voices ever heard,” Lebrun linked clues to find the musician. After a good deal of elbow grease, he learned that Orlando Julius was the first African signed to Polydor Records in 1968 and spent several years living in the U.S. Lebrun studied the records made during that time, especially when Julius played with Tunde Williams (who also played with Fela) and Gil Scott Heron. After he was denied recognition for co-authoring the hit song "Going Back to My Roots" with Lamont Dozier, Julius released his retaliation “I am Back To My Roots.” When Lebrun found Julius, they formed a tender and genuine grandfather-grandson type of relationship, which remains in tact today. In addition to their daily contact, Julius now tours with Latin soul band Setenta (whose Hot Casa-produced collab you can watch below).

Hot Casa's latest unveiling (to be released March 1st) is Cote d' Ivoire legend Pierre Antoine's ultra rare album on deluxe vinyl 180g, CD, digital. It was Julien's partner Afrobrazilero who first spotted the record, which ultimately came out of an adventure on a long bus trip to a rare record shop in a small village situated in the east of Cote d' Ivoire. Lebrun still gets a boyish sparkle in his eyes when he talks about the way that Pierre Antoine brought the piano into afro-beat. “At first listen, you can hear the precision in the arrangements and harmonies. The track is almost 12 minutes and you don’t even think of it, like a mellow jazz trance. In terms of structure and harmonies, it‘s a Fela-type of writing, a pure afrobeat style. The originality of this album is that Pierre Antoine used piano and Ghanaian horns and a vocal section. The beauty of this album is you can hear different type of music in one, it’s an afro–beat album but using jazz chorus, afro soul horns section, funk bass, Ivorian percussions and great lyrics.”

The Pierre Antoine album is a rare record, with only ten copies in the world, currently being sold anywhere from 500-1000 Euros. Hot Casa heads looked for the family of Pierre Antoine for years before finally meeting his brother. “It was a hard five-year work to find the producer and the family composer. I knew, by friends in Abidjan, that Pierre Antoine died in 1993.” After searching the original label, and the society for artist’s rights without answer, Lebrun did not give up. “My friend Samy Ben Redjeb from Analog Africa, found the brother of Pierre Antoine named Stephen Ahui, a brilliant person who lives in Abidjan now and who’s in charge of his brother's rights. Mr. Ahui came to France to visit his daughter and it was a great pleasure to share coffee with him for hours to speak about music, his brother and the Ivorian situation. His brother was almost crying when I showed him the other album with a photo of his brother on the front. I had another album of his brother that he didn’t know, so he stayed really concentrated on the cover for a few minutes, it was very intense. He shot it with his camera and it was a deep and true emotion. His brother was born in 1951 and suddenly died very young.” The Pierre Antoine record is due out March 1st. Until then, keep your soul in the spirit with the rest of Hot Casa's catalogue and collections.

Image: Courtesy TIFF

Jenna Cato Bass is Capturing the Horrors of an Unhealed Nation

The film marks the South African director's third debut and stride towards making a name for herself in the international film circuit.

Ever since premiering her debut film, Love the One You Love, which won the Best Feature Film at the Jozi Festival in 2015, Jenna Cato Bass has been a name to watch on the international film festival circuit. Her 2017 feature, High Fantasy, was the first of her films to land on the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) lineup, followed by Flatland in 2019. Her latest offering, Mlungu Wam (Good Madam), debuted at TIFF in September of 2021 — marking her third time at the esteemed Canadian film event.

Often provocative, always thought-provoking, Bass' films have come to establish her as a director who looks at South Africa's youth, the lives they're living and the future that awaits them, with a nuanced, open-minded lens. For the first time in her career, Bass uses the genre of horror to dig into an enduring mark of the country's past — that of the fraught, complex relationship between madam and domestic worker, in Mlungu Wam (Good Madam). Set in Cape Town, the film follows the unusual, disturbing things that start happening when a young woman moves back in with her estranged mother, who is the longtime caretaker for a rich, white household.

Bass also co-wrote the film Tug of War (Vuta N'Kuvute), which became Tanzania's first film to be selected for TIFF this year, and she co-wrote Rafiki, which was Kenya's first film at TIFF in 2018.

She spoke to OkayAfrica about playing in a new genre and her hopes for African cinema.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF

This story revolves around the relationship between a domestic worker and her 'madam.' What made you want to make a film about this subject?

When I make films, I like the concept to revolve around something that we all have in common - because, despite the many fractures in our society, these shared places exist. And in South Africa, we felt that everyone - in some way or another - has been deeply affected by domestic work and domestic workers, who are a keystone in our society's structure. Additionally, the 'maid' and 'madam' relationship is the ultimate symbol of race relations in South Africa - as well as how they haven't changed significantly, despite almost thirty years of democracy. So a domestic worker was the perfect character around which to centre a South African horror.

The genre of horror works really well to explore this subject and tell this story — when did you know it would be the genre you'd want to use?

The early stages of developing a film aren't always linear for me. I'll be thinking about a genre I'm interested in, and then parallel to that I'll have an idea for a story or a character, and later on, will realize that these pieces all fit together. In this case, I'd been wanting to make a horror film for ages, but hadn't found the right story… until I had the idea for Mlungu Wam, and I realized I was finally ready to try this genre.

What challenges did you face in making a horror?

It was my first time working in this genre, and it was intimidating because there's no saving you if you fail. We were also working on a very, very limited budget, so it wasn't possible to show as much as we'd like to - but then again, this story was all about the subjective and the unseen, so I did as much research and planning as we could, and just had to trust it would work.

Where did you film, and did that have any impact on the process at all?

We filmed in a house in Cape Town, in a gated community in the Southern Suburbs. The house and the environment had a major impact on the film - especially because we were also quarantining there for the full 7 weeks of rehearsal and shooting. The house was our set and our accommodation, so it was very intense, very claustrophobic, and very triggering for many of our team members.

How did you and co-writer Babalwa Baartman work on the story? You've included cast members in the writing process in your previous work — did you do that here too?

Mlungu Wam was made along similar lines to my first two films, Love The One You Love and High Fantasy, where we started with an outline, cast actors, then workshopped the characters collaboratively before completing the story breakdown and using improv for the dialogue. Babalwa and I had worked together using this method on a short film we made in 2019 called Sizohlala. She really understands the process, and it was a really rewarding experience exploring the story with her and our cast.

How did Kristina Ceyton, who produced the excellent acclaimed horrors The Babadook and The Nightingale, through Causeway Films, come to be involved in this film?

I had met Sam Jennings, who is also a producer with Causeway Films, several years ago at a festival. We really connected and kept in touch over the years, sharing our work, and hoping there'd be a chance to collaborate. So when we were developing Mlungu Wam, I pitched her and Kristina the concept and they were immediately supportive. It has been a massive pleasure working with them both.

Your films are known to venture into themes of identity and healing from the past — how does this film speak to that?

Mlungu Wam is definitely about this too - it's a story about three generations of women (actually four, if you include Tsidi's grandmother, who is an unseen character in the film), how they are haunted by the past and eventually refuse to remain chained any longer. Their healing is collective, linked to each other, and wouldn't be possible for them alone as individuals.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF

You've been at TIFF before - how has your experience of it been this year, with it being a hybrid of virtual and in-person?

Things have been quieter and a bit harder to navigate, but the TIFF staff have done incredible work getting the festival off the ground, despite endless challenges. It has felt very surreal to be here, and a privilege - and inspiring too, that we can still get together to celebrate films, even though our world is in such a mess. We had over 200 (socially distanced) people at our last screening, and that was an amazing feeling.

Yours is one of few African films on this year's line-up - is there anything you'd like to see happen to try improve that?

Regarding African cinema, TIFF has a real range of films this year, across several sections. Compared to many other festivals, they seem really invested in supporting cinema from the continent. Of course, this could be better, but it's also an example to other festivals who claim there aren't enough African films, that this is clearly not the case.

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